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10 tips for email newsletters that work

Designing an email newsletter is not like designing a web page. There is so much you can do on a web page that you can’t do on email. These tips aren’t definitive but they cover the main issues.

1. Design for Outlook 2007
Outlook 2007 is a stone age email program in that it doesn’t support so many features that we have come to accept as normal in web design. The two most important to remember are backgrounds and animated GIFs – neither of which are supported. Put white text over a background image and you will find that your Outlook 2007 recipients just get a big white space in your email newsletters. Place an animated GIF in an email newsletter and Outlook 2007 will freeze it on the first screen – one tip to cope with this, if you want to use animation, is to ensure the first screen contains all the important information and call to action.

2. Stylesheets are unreliable – in-line styling is better
Email is treated differently in each client. Hotmail renders newsletters differently from Gmail, which renders differently from Outlook. Then there are other clients and different platforms (Mac v PC v Linux). Many newsletter designers are used to using Dreamweaver to build web pages and they use the same to create email newsletters. The problem there is the embedded stylesheet (CSS) in the header. It may be completely ignored by the recipient client, meaning your nice layout looks rubbish. A way round this is to use in-line CSS (eg, <span style=”font-size:10pt;”>Text</span>), or revert to old-style tagging with HTML attributes (eg, <font size=”2″>Text</font>).

3. Think about width
A lot of people have small screens, or small screen settings, and they view emails in windows that are restricted by other things on the screen. A good rule of thumb is to keep email newsletters to between 500 pixels and 600 pixels wide. Any wider and you may be forcing your recipient to scroll horizontally to read. If you want to keep it simple, you could design an email that is relational to the screen width.

4. ALT tags that make sense
Many emails these days are designed as graphic-rich HTML layouts, and many recipients have default settings that hide these images until they choose to show them. All images in your emails should contain ALT tags that contain sensible, relevant information. If an image is a clickable call to action, for example, your ALT text should state the call to action and be descriptive of the image. Anyone seeing your email with images hidden will still be able to read the ALT text and see that it is clickable.

5. Avoid spammy text and offers
There is a massive list of what a spam filter doesn’t like. Your job is to make sure you don’t break too many spam filter rules and get your email scored above the threshold for being blocked. Obvious things are easy to work out, such as lots of dollar or pound signs (“Save $$$$s”), lots of capital letters and lots of red text or a series of exclamation marks (which is awful grammatically anyway). As a general rule, if your email reads like a bad second hand car salesman sells, you are going to be treated with disdain by both spam filters and by recipients of your emails.

6. Offer more than one call to action.
This rule is not always correct. If your email is promoting a sale on one product, then your call to action shouldn’t be confused by other things. Get the click and convert the sale. But if your email is a general newsletter, make sure you include a few things to respond to. If you only have one, the likelihood of getting a click out of your reader is reduced.

7. Monday is a good day to send
Lots of people love Fridays for broadcasting newsletters because they get opened. Statistics also suggest Sunday is the best day for a good click-through ratio, but Monday seems to be the best day to get a mixture of good open rates and good click rates. You should test for yourself though and see what works for you. Remember a Bank Holiday Monday isn’t going to work as well, because people are all at the beach or having a barbecue.

8. Compelling and seasonal content
Use seasons to come up with content ideas and engaging offers that are interesting for inclusion in your newsletters. Offer exclusive discounts to newsletter subscribers, for example, to encourage a response but also to encourage subscriber loyalty.

9. Never buy subscribers, and keep your list clean
Don’t keep trying to send to old addresses. If addresses bounce two times, or even once, remove them from the list. The cleaner your list, the better your response rates, but also the better the load on your broadcaster, and on the ISPs you are sending to. Hotmail and AOL, for example, take a very dim view of people sending thousands of emails to non-existent addresses on their servers. You want them to welcome you, not block you. Don’t add people to your list that you just collected arbitrarily. Qualify them as subscribers.

10. Try different things and test the results
Try A/B split testing of emails – sending two or three variants of an email or a subject line to see which gets the best response. Try different days and different times of the day. Bear in mind that text will always get more clicks than a clickable image – test that for yourself to see. Don’t be afraid to ask your users for feedback on your email newsletters so you can improve your content.

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Published inCRM

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